By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Scott Shay is truly a preacher man.
The Rogers Park native has just finished a delicious kosher lunch in Skokie. An additional menu item would be plotting the course of the son of a Holocaust survivor who went to Sullivan High School, then transferred to Ida Crown Jewish Academy, who went from a classical North Side Jewish upbringing to founding Signature Bank, which survived the Great Recession in good shape, and is now expanding to San Francisco.
Shay was back home in Chicago to promote his new book, “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism,” which promotes seeking and advocating the golden rules – covering everyday life and the justice system — from the Torah.
The book attempts to prove the Torah sketched out a more compassionate way of living and administering justice than critics, including atheists who are more vocal in modern times, give it credit.
For example, he portrays ancient Hebrew justice as being more exacting and comprehensive than the modern courts system, which tilts toward the prosecution and frequently involves plea bargaining that avoids full-blown trials. According to Jewish law, two witnesses were required to issue a warning to a miscreant in advance of his committing a crime. Their testimony was required to advance the conviction process. Hearsay and circumstantial evidence were not permitted.
Shay’s personal story involves going from Ida Crown to Northwestern with a detour during his junior year to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Then, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in economics from Northwestern, he continued the academic grind at the Kellogg graduate school of management.
“I was offered a job by Salomon Brothers,” Shay said, “and they asked me to move to New York for my first two years or so — which turned out to be more than 35 years.
“As you know, things happen.”
Shay analyzes ancient texts and how they could apply to today. He used the examples of Moses and the Purim story of Mordechai and Esther to cite the concept of leaders who rescue Jews from trouble. But Shay said other leaders would have emerged if these all-time heroes had not. Leadership is crucial in fulfilling the original intent of biblical teachings.
“Idolatry appears in day-to-day life. The opposite of idolatry is the person who doesn’t take a bribe. It’s the person who does the right thing at work. It’s the person who stands up finally to a Harvey Weinstein. If you want to qualify for moral leadership, you have to stand up.
“Sometimes our most defining moments are our intimate encounters. Like what the Bible shows, those intimate encounters can have epic consequences. That’s part of the majesty of the Bible.”
Which is why Shay takes issue with those who blame G-d for the Holocaust, figure G-d had departed just when he was most needed. And he takes issue with those who blame G-d for the development of nuclear weapons as a counterforce to Hitler. With Jewish hands like Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller all over their construction, the nukes now put some of G-d’s power in man’s hands. In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many pundits rated the development of the weapons, tapping “the power of the universe” in Harry S Truman’s words, a story greater than World War II itself.
But Shay’s belief is that humans had the ability to stop Hitler on their own before they developed a weapon that could end the world.
“Man has to take action,” Shay said. “We are our brothers’ keepers. But we weren’t.
“We lost millions more Jews that shouldn’t have been killed. We lost children that shouldn’t have been killed.
“If man would have stood up, G-d would have helped. In the end, G-d did not let (all the) Jews die. Hitler didn’t win. G-d only stands up when we go way off the rails.
“After Kristallnacht, the Germans were surprised,” Shay said. “They thought there’d be pushback. There wasn’t.”
As for the situation today, the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09, which banker Shay admitted has been “uneven,” has not enveloped all. And the bad feelings and lesser living conditions endured by millions of Americans compared to pre-2008 has led to anti-immigrant sentiment while boosting anti-Semitism.
Shay fully understands these threads. Heavenly processes often mandate a much bumpier road than desired in his view.
“G-d doesn’t always make things easier,” he said. “Sometimes he makes things harder because that’s the test. I believe our life is a test, to figure out how to do things when they are hard. If we were on Earth and everything was easy, we’d be automatons.”
“Hitler didn’t win. The nuclear bomb, for whatever you wanted to say (about its origins), has not been used in anger since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of people thought that prevented war between the United States and Russia, and China.
“We’re finite beings. We can’t see the whole picture.”
He cited the example of his late father, George Shay, who survived the Nazi killing machine for years, first by stumbling into the right group of captured Jews, then by using his carpentry skills in work camps. surviving years in German custody.
“There were little things that had they gone minutely different, he’d be dead,” he said. “My father was one of those people who knew there was a G-d. By all rights he should have been dead. Basically his whole family was wiped out. He was angry appropriately.
“It’s possible to believe in G-d, and not be happy with G-d. There’s no inherent contradiction in that. Have I been unhappy with G-d? Yes. We Jews always argue with G-d. There’s the famous story of a Chasidic rabbi holding a trial of G-d in a concentration camp. Yes, we would like G-d to intervene. I know personally of people who died too young. No question would I have wanted G-d to intervene.”
Shay’s own personal morality play began with the example of his father, who could move past his camp experiences to work with a German and speak the language with his associate in post-war carpentry work. After starting with Salomon Brothers and working with other investment banking firms, Shay started Signature Bank. He continues to serve as chairman of the board.
“This golden rule that I keep talking about is critical business-wise, too,” Shay said. “I have a saying – the trick to being a good banker is not to be a genius, but to avoid the genius.
“We did not invest in sub-prime mortgages. I told that to the board. I had to think, if I was a depositor, would I want my bank to make that loan, or that investment? It’s the golden rule again. Don’t do unto the depositors what you wouldn’t want done unto yourself.
“Some people thought they were geniuses or smarter than everyone else. They were gaming the system. We didn’t have that view. Signature Bank was the only bank in the United States above $4 billion in assets that didn’t have a down year in the financial crisis. We made more money in ’08 than ’07, and more money in ’09 than in ’08.
“The reason it took us so long to get out of the crisis, and we (still) haven’t in many ways, is because the 2008 crisis was different than many others,” he said. “It was a crisis of trust. The mortgage crisis was you had people making loans that couldn’t be repaid. People who were taking out loans were liars. They said whatever they had to.
“It’s not that people deified money. They deified themselves. And money is a form of power. I think the time we have a fully-developed economy with everything going well is when we restore our trust. I don’t know when that’s going to be. I think the economy still has more to go (to improve)
“The Bible hates monopolies. It has the jubilee, where debts are forgiven. Anytime too much power is accumulated in too few hands is bad. We are becoming a bi-furcated economy. On one hand you have the Amazons and the Facebooks. They become sole platforms. You couldn’t start another Amazon. Teddy Roosevelt was 100 percent right.”
“TR” was following a biblical creed: beware of false idols – the idolatry of greed. “In Good Faith” is as much a book about business as religion.